In the summer's most compelling movie about teenagers, the passage through adolescence is a perilous haul. This is not the Hollywood idyll of Ozzie and Harriet. Family structures have broken down, parents and adults are either absent or irrelevant. The kids thrash about in a sea of pop cultural junk, cobbling lives out of casual sex and even more casual drag use. Moral issues are whatever. A drawn handgun is just a bad way to end an already bad night.
The movie is "Clueless," the Mentos-fresh comedy from Amy Heckerling, who directed the teen classic "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Set in a snooty Los Angeles high school- I think you know which ZIP code"Clueless" draws adolescence as a meaningless but zesty quest to get baked, get busy and get over--preferably in a form-fitting Azzedine Alaia dress. In Larry Clark's "Kids," which also opens this week, the teenagers stagger beneath a similar hormonal storm, but to much different effect. Shot in a neutral, documentary style, and released without a rating--the MPAA deemed it a commercially damaging NC-17--"Kids" tracks a day in the life of some New York skate kids as they also mindlessly troll for sex and drags. "Clue-less" is loosely based on Jane Austen's novel "Emma"; "Kids" evolved from Clark's graphic photos of street kids in Tulsa, Okla., and New York shooting up, copulating and toying with guns. Otherwise, really, they're a lot alike.
"Clueless" is largely a long roll of shiny gift wrap for Alicia Silverstone, the 18-year-old siren whose pedigree includes roles in three Aerosmith videos. She doesn't so much come of age during the film as ripen. As Cher, the most popular girl in Bronson Alcott High, she is beautiful, pampered, savvy and owns a lot of daring plaid ensembles. Her life, as she says in the breezy opening voice-over, is "like a Noxzema commercial or what." She seems to be the only girl in school not undergoing cosmetic surgery (this movie never met a nose-job joke it didn't like). She has the comfort of her own moral code. "It is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties," she waxes, "but it is quite another to be fried all day." And her pout could melt a Carvel Cookie Puss. But still, all is not perfect for Cher. She lost her mother to a fluke accident during a routine liposuction. Her best friend, Dionne--"We were both named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials," she says-refers to Cher as "hymenally challenged." Worse, as another girl tosses at her, in the film's coldest cut,"You're a virgin who can't drive." Ant though she meddles selflessly in the roman tic affairs of others, Cher herself is strangely without a boyfriend. Somehow, you just know, by the third act she will find a way out of this existential heck.
Like "Kids," "Clueless" proceeds without killjoy grown-ups or antagonists: no Office Krupke, no Jim Backus in an apron. Adolescence itself is the menace to be subdued These are teen films modeled after disaster movies. An evil essence descends on the citizenry, leaving havoc and occasional plot devices in its wake. (Evidently the baby boomers making teen movies these days, in the interest of being modern, have abandoned the quaint notion of parental responsibility.) Heckerling captures her characters' squirmings with affection and wonder. She has a sharp ear for slang.The multiracial teens talk a careless mixture of Valley-speak and hip-hop argot. The African-American kids drop Yiddish; the princesses talk Compton. When Silverstone, all saucer eyes and infectious comic twinkle, declares a round of junk food "dope," it is a Benetton moment.
"Kids," Clark's directorial debut, offers no such tender moments. "I wanted to show what it was really like to be a teenager," says Clark, who made the film after hanging out with skateboard kids in New York's Washington Square Park. "The hormones are raging. You have an intense appetite for sex and violence. . .These Hollywood movies about teenagers aren't realistic at all." The film opens on Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the "virgin surgeon," locked in an oceanic kiss with a girl barely out of puberty. (The actors, nonprofessionals, were at the time both 17; they're younger and more breakable than the kids we usually see enacting this scene.) Telly is awkward but cocky, a half-man with a funny speech impediment. Surrounded by her stuffed animals, he coaxes the girl out of her virginity. After she has cried her way through his spasms, he deposits a puddle of spittle on her dining-room table, bolts outside and describes the encounter in cold detail to his friend. "Virgins," he says, "I love 'em. No diseases . . . No skank . . . Just pure pleasure."
This is the world of "Kids": relentless predation, callous disregard and no real joy. There is also a lot of pot, and an occasional hit of something stronger. It is a boy's world; the girls here function mostly as ill-used toys. "They want you to be so kind, so gentle," says one boy. "Like you give a f--- or something." Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine, 21, evoke this world with vivid verisimilitude and a discomforting reluctance to pass judgment. It just is. At its most convincing, the film starkly captures the closeness between sexy teen swagger--the pretense of brutality-and the real thing. In "Kids," as in his photos, Clark unflinchingly accepts both.
There's not much driving the plot: Telly wants to find the next virgin; Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who discovers that he has given her the AIDS virus, wants to tell him before he beds someone else. Along the way there's an extraordinarily brutal spontaneous group assault and a listless rape. But these are all awkward filmic devices, and they feel artificially imposed to squeeze a narrative out of static summer boredom. Boredom doesn't make a movie: it makes a photograph, and Clark's photos tell tougher, better stories than his film. Bluntly powerful in its imagery and milieu, "Kids" stumbles when it tries to shape itself into a feature film.
So why does all the underlying business-the mundane pursuit of heterosexual bunny-hopping and a good buzz--make such sugary froth in "Clueless" and feel like the end of the world in "Kids"? The difference lies in part in Clark's grittier tone, but also in ways the films cast adolescence. In "Clueless," as in most teen movies, adolescence is a hump to get over; when these kids talk about makeovers, malls or drugs, they're really talking about rites of deliverance. In "Kids," the reckless pursuits of sex and highs aren't metaphors for more elevated goals--they're what life is all about. Without glorifying it, Clark shows a romantic respect for this life, and for the dangerous boys who live it. In his work, "Kids" included, adolescence is more than an inconvenient obstacle in the are of life: it is the raw nut. The film's most unsettling scene shows four boys of about 11 or 12 sitting shirtless on a couch, smoking pot and talking the talk of the older kids. In this disaster movie, the disaster isn't capped at the end, it's spreading its domain.